The Dreaming Spires of Oxford

Friday, June 30, 2017:

Off to Check out Oxford’s Dreaming Spires:

            In a past life, well over thirty years ago, Shahnaz used to be a stewardess with Air-India. Her travels have taken her around the world many times and Oxford had been on her agenda—in the hoary past. Not remembering anything of the city, she was delighted to have me for a guide in one of my favorite cities in the whole world—my sometime home, the seat of much of my intellectual activity.

We had booked tickets by Megabus from London and, awaking again at the crack of dawn, we boarded one at 7. 30 am from London Victoria to arrive on The High at about 9.00 am. From this time on, our exploration would begin. We resolved to stop for a rest every one hour—and often we did (but not necessarily after each hour).

Here is the walking tour route through which I took her:

  1. From High Street into Queens Lane, passing by St. Edmund Hall College and New College. This affords the first glimpses of what Mathew Arnold so memorably called “the dreaming spires” of Oxford.
  2. Detour into Turf Tavern Alleyway to see the home of Jane Burden, Muse to the Pre-Raphaelites and wife of artist William Morris.
  3. A peep into the Turf Tavern, well associated with the fictional Inspector Morse, a creation of the novelist Colin Dexter, and Bill Clinton (both of whom downed countless pints here).
  4. Under the Bridge of Sighs that joins two parts of Hereford College to bring us out on Catte Street.
  5. A glimpse of the Indian Institute with its Indian motifs on the walls—cows, lions, an elephant.
  6. Walk down Holywell Lane to see Holywell House where music recitals are often held. Also the site of the pilot episode in the TV series Lewis which was a spin off from Inspector Morse.
  7. A return to Catte Street and a walk down Parks Road to get to Rhodes House to see the base of all Rhodes Scholars in Oxford in a building with a spectacular rotunda designed by Herbert Baker (who, together with Edwin Lutyens), designed the city of New Delhi.
  8. A visit to the Natural History Museum to see Charles Ludwig Dodgson (Lewis Carol) memorabilia in the special vitrine dedicated to the extinct Dodo bird. We also saw the dinosaur skeletons and wonderful stone sculpted scientists like Darwin and Linneaus.
  9. A visit to the Pitt Rivers Collection in the back of the Museum to see thousands of items collected by Oxford naturalist Pitt Rivers—the Shrunken Heads are the biggest attraction and we saw them (they also feature in an episode of Lewis). We also saw the New Zealand knife that featured in an episode of Inspector Morse (“The Daughters of Cain”). On the advice of a guide, we actually took the elevator to the second floor (a first time for me) for wonderful views of the collection from on high. This enabled us to admire the brilliant architecture of Victorian designers—a feature with which we are familiar as Crawford Market in Bombay looks very similar to this building (as does Empress Market in Karachi). Upstairs, we took in the endless collection of just one man that includes everything you could possibly imagine from terracotta pots of native American Indians to Canadian totem poles, from pointed spears and arrowheads to shell-studded dolls and other toys. It is truly a stupendous collection.
  10. Crossing the street, we entered Keble College—sadly it was not open to visitors at this hour, but we did get a peep into its sunken Quad and had the opportunity to admire its red brick façade which is different from the Gothic exterior of other Oxbridge colleges.
  11. Brisk walk brought us back to The Broad (Broad Street) where we took a much-needed rest in the cafeteria of the new Weston Library. I had a milky Americano and Shanaz had a cappuccino as we rested our feet and took in the grand interiors of Oxford’s newest library and main administrative building. When we felt more relaxed, we nipped into the gallery next door to see a special exhibition called ‘Which Jane Austen?’–a special show to commemorate the author’s second death centenary which falls this year. We saw first editions of her books, much of her correspondence with family members and friends, her portable writing desk and a lot of other wonderful memorabilia. In the adjoining theater, we watched a short film entitled “Jane Austen and the BBC” which showed us clips from many of the BBC versions of Austen’s novels from the 1950s onwards.
  12. Back on The Broad, we entered Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famed bookstore, to see the underground Norrington Rooms—the only underground bookstore in the world.
  13. Quick entry into The White Horse Tavern—also a frequent drinking hole of Inspector Morse and Lewis.
  14. Across The Broad, we entered the Museum of Science to see its biggest attraction—the blackboard used by Albert Einstein when he gave an invited lecture at Oxford. The theory he presented there is still on the board in his own handwriting!
  15. Stroll through Clarendon Court to arrive at the Sheldonian Theater, Christopher Wren’s cupola-ed masterpiece in Oxford. Its horse-shoe shaped amphitheater is used for graduation ceremonies and concert recitals.
  16. Entry into Bodleian Square to see the main building of the Bodleian Library. We went through the main entrance but did not pay the fee to see the Divinity School whose carved pendant stone ceiling and fan vaulting are two of Oxford’s highlights. Instead we nipped into the library’s shop to buy a few souvenirs. We took in the tall main wall of the quadrangle with its classical columns that rise in tiers to present a sculpture of James I in whose time the library was built (with inherited money from his wife by Thomas Bodley—which we had learned on our walking tour of Totnes!).
  17. Through to Radcliff Square where we took in the splendor of one of Oxford’s most sensational buildings—the Radcliff Camera (or Rad Cam as it is known colloquially). Built by James Gibbs in the mid 1700s in neo-classical style, I have had the immense privilege of carrying out research in his member-only reading rooms with their magnificent interior ornamentation. We also took in the twin spires of lovely All Souls College—the scholar’s college–for it only admits scholars who already have a doctorate!
  18. Visit to the Parish Church of St. Mary the Virgin which fronts the High Street. Took in the beautiful choir area with its painting of Madonna and Child by Simon Vouet and its chancel sculptures. Saw the pillar at which three of Oxford’s martyrs, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, were tried as heathens.
  19. As it was almost 1.00 pm and we had a lunch appointment with my friends Susan and Tony, we hurried off to meet them. We crossed The Broad and arrived at the spot where the three martyrs were actually burned at the stake in the reign of Bloody Mary Tudor, first-born daughter of Henry VIII. Also saw the Martyrs Memorial at St. Giles and then crossed the street towards The Randolf Hotel to hurry towards the Eagle and Child pub (once a haunt of the Inklings—C.S. Lewis of Narnia fame and J.R.R. Tolkien of Hobbit fame). The place was much too tiny and too crowded for us to enjoy lunch there. After a lovely reunion with my friends (in whose home in Grandpont I have often stayed), we walked towards Little Clarendon Street to Carlucci’s—for a taste of authentic Italian cuisine.
  20. Lunch at Carlucci’s gave us a chance to catch up with my friends and to rest our weary feet. I had the two-course set lunch which came with liver pate, onion marmalade and toast points and the linguine with beef ragu for my second course. Other members of our party had risotto verde, spinach and goat cheese ravioli and spaghetti vongole with cappuccinos to follow. It made for a very nice mid-exploration rest as we chatted nineteen to the dozen. What a great thing it is to be able to see my friends at each of these venues and to be able to spend quality time with them even when my schedule is so tight.
  21. After lunch, I escorted Shahnaz to the Ashmolean Museum (one of the world’s greatest museums) to take its self-guided highlights tour—entitled 10 Highlights in an Hour. As I had visited the Ashmolean only six months ago, I thought I could make better use of my time, but I did not want Shahnaz to miss its brilliant offerings. We decided to meet 90 minutes later at a café on The Broad by the very spot of the martyr’s execution. Shahnaz loved the tour, saw most of the highlights and then some, while I raced off to the Oxfam shop to look for vintage treasures and then to the shoe section in Marks and Spencer on George Street as we had left almost no time for any kind of shopping in our crowded itinerary and I needed to find a pair of wide-toed black shoes (which I always buy from Marks). Sadly, I did not find anything I liked.
  22. Ninety minutes later at the appointed spot, Shahnaz and I reunited. It was time to take her into one of the colleges which opens to visitors between 2 and 5 pm daily. Into Turl Street we went as I took her, naturally, into Exeter College that I know best from my own student and teaching days there. We entered through the Porter’s Lodge and saw the lovely Quad as we made our way into the chapel that was designed by George Gilbert Scott (who also designed the Library at the University of Bombay that I have also used). The library connection I share in both India and Oxford with this architect is a very special matter of interest to me. We took in the gorgeous Byzantine altar with its gold mosaics, the tapestry by Edward Burne-Jones, one of the college’s Pre-Raphaelite alumni, entitled The Adoration of the Magi for which Jane Burden (whose home we had seen in Turf Tavern passage) had posed. We also took in the beautifully painted organ and the Irish Celtic floor tiles around the altar. The stained glass windows, however, are a highlight of the chapel for they are based on the royaume style of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and feature tiny pieces of glass held together by lead through which the sun shines with jeweled colors. In fact, the outside of the chapel also features the distinctive spire that is also inspired by Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle.
  23. Off to the Margary Quadrangle we went so that I could point out to Shahnaz the room I had occupied in Oxford We also took in the underground lecture rooms in which, in recent years, I have taught at the college’s summer school (which I had once attended as a student myself). We also nipped into the Junior Common Room which led to the Fellows’ Garden at the back. Crossing the Fellows’ Garden (on what appeared to be Open House Day), we climbed steps leading to the ramparts and walls of the college. Perched up here, one receives some of the best views of Radcliffe Square from a height. We rested again, took a few pictures, and then continued with our tour as there was still so much to see. Poor Shahnaz would have begun to feel seriously fatigued by this point but she wished to press on to take everything in.
  24. We returned to Turl Street and made a detour into the Covered Market so that she could see the stalls and shops, some of which date from a few hundred years. There are butchers, bakers and candle-stick makers in these precincts and it is always a pleasure to get a glimpse into the vendors’ wares.
  25. Back on The High, we walked towards Carfax to see the confluence of the four main crossroads that have stood on this site from ancient times: Cornmarket Street (its name says everything), High Street, George Street and St. Aldgate’s.
  26. Walking down St. Aldgates, we nipped into Oxford’s Town Hall where Shahnaz learned a bit about the Town Versus Gown controversy that has long persisted in these parts. Although it is normally closed to visitors and can be seen only on an official conducted tour that occurs just once a month, the guard permitted us to climb the steps and enter the spectacular Main Assembly Room with its incredibly detailed and very lavish interior decoration that consists of rich plaster work on ceiling and walls with the added attraction of embossed cherubs that jut out in the most appealing way.
  27. Leaving the Town Hall, we walked down St. Aldgates and made a detour down Bear Lane so that I could take Shahnaz to a pub called The Bear which has a distinctive collections of thousands of ties in glass cases on its ceiling and walls. There was a time when the publican would take a tie from patrons in lieu of money for a drink. Thus, he amassed a vast collection, each of which is lovingly labelled and dated! Needless to say, it is no longer possible to pay for a drink in that fashion! Probably the fact that there is no more room anywhere to display the ties accounts for the discontinuation of the practice!
  28. We then entered the precincts of Christ Church College which was built by Cardinal Wolsey and then taken over by Henry VIII—it boasts the largest Quad in Oxford and unfinished cloisters. Since Evensong would begin in half an hour, we decided to attend it. So off we walked to Christ Church’s Perennial Gardens which offers a lovey backdrop for clicking pictures. We had no time or energy to walk across the Meadows towards the river, but we did cross the street to inspect Alice’s Shop (which was closed) as Lewis Carol was a mathematics don at Christ Church and his novel Alice in Wonderland was motivated by a cruise down the river Thames to which he had treated 10-year old Alice Liddel, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church.
  29. We re-entered Christ Church and made our way towards its Cathedral to attend Evensong which began at 6.00 pm. It was the second Evensong service we would attend on this trip (having attended also at Exeter Cathedral). This one was far better as it included child choristers who brought a decidedly angelic sound to the singing. We left at 6.30 as we had a coach back to London at 7. 15 and did not want to be late.
  30. We nipped into M&S to pick up some food that we could eat on the coach back to London. We arrived at our bus stop on The High at 7.05 and were actually able to catch the earlier coach to arrive in London at about 8.45 pm.

Of course, it was a whirlwind tour. But I have to say that Shahnaz loved every second of it—for so she told me! There was simply no way she could have squeezed so much into her day had it not been for her willing spirit. By the time we arrived at Marble Arch, we had rested a great deal. We had also spied en route the darkened skeleton of the Grenfell Tower building that had succumbed to a very tragic fire only a couple of weeks ago.

From Marble Arch, we jumped into a bus that took us directly to Battersea where we dressed for bed and gratefully sank down to sleep.

Until tomorrow, Cheerio.